by Mangesh Buwa

Swami Vivekananda and Adhikarawada1

Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda came among us to put the ancient message of Vedanta in simple language so that vast number of people can apply it to their lives; ‘his life’s work’, as he famously said, was:

‘… to put the Hindu ideas into English and then make out of dry philosophy and intricate mythology and queer startling psychology, a religion which shall be easy, simple, popular, and at the same time meet the requirements of the highest minds – is a task only those can understand who have attempted it. The dry, abstract Advaita must become living — poetic — in everyday life; out of hopelessly intricate mythology must come concrete moral forms; and out of bewildering Yogi-ism must come the most scientific and practical psychology — and all this must be put in a form so that a child may grasp it. That is my life’s work.’2

For centuries the traditional wisdom in India, on authority of scriptures said that highest spiritual truths are not to be distributed among masses; only competent spiritual aspirants should hear them. Thus Swami Vivekananda’s actions appear contradictory to this traditional practice. Is it so? And if it is, what are the possible reasons behind this approach? Let us try to analyze and understand this.

For this analysis we need to look at the Adhikarawada doctrine of Hinduism which divides human mind – based on its purity/subtlety – into various grades. Adhikara can be defined as:

‘… adhikāra conveys a cognate group of ideas, such as right, claim, capacity, domain etc.; and this principle demands that a man has a right to that kind and amount of work done, for which he has got the necessary capacity and aptitude.’3 

Many ancient scriptures in India have taken care to formulate their teachings according to the mental makeup of the listeners. Traditional Vedanta categorizes spiritual aspirants into three categories based on the refinement of their antaḥkaraṇa (inner psyche/mind) as, uttama adhikārī (highest competency), madhyama adhikārī (medium competency), and adhama adhikārī (lowest competency). Each type of adhikāra requires different method of explaining the same Truth e.g. aspirant with highest competency – i.e. one who has pure and subtle mental grasping powers – may just be needed to hear the words ‘Thou Art That’ to realize the Truth; whereas aspirant with lowest competency – i.e. one who has gross and dull mental powers – may need elaborate practice of rituals and chantings. In fact, the whole society in ancient India was structured, into four varnas and human life was divided, into four ashramas, based on society’s gradual evolution towards the highest Truth; Swami Vivekananda says, ‘This system of division into different Varnas is the stepping-stone to civilisation, making one rise higher and higher in proportion to one’s learning and culture’.4 Thus we find various scriptures laying down different rules, defining qualifications for aspirants, prohibiting uninitiated from listening to Truth, enjoining various dos & don’ts etc. Vedantasara – the introductory text of Vedanta – refers to the qualifications required by a mumukṣu (one desirous of Liberation), before he/she embarks on the journey towards Self-Realization, as:

‘The competent student is an aspirant who, by studying in accordance with the prescribed method the Vedas and vedāṅgas (books auxiliary to the Vedas), has obtained a general comprehension of the entire Vedas; who, being absolved from all sins in this or in previous life by the avoidance of the actions known as kāmya (rites performed with a view to attaining a desired object) and niṣiddha (those forbidden in the scriptures) and by the performance of actions called nitya (daily obligatory rites)’5

Then there are many verses which specifically warn that highest truths should not be told to people ‘with no faith’ or ‘with immature minds’, such as:

न बुद्धिभेदं जनयेदज्ञानां कर्मसङ्गिनाम् (na buddhibhedaṁ janayedajñānāṁ karmasaṅginām)
‘One should not unsettle the understanding of the ignorant, attached to action (by teaching them Jnana)’6

अभक्ते वञ्चके धूर्ते पाखण्डे नास्तिके नरे। (abhakte vañcake dhūrte pākhaṇḍe nāstike nare |)
मनसापि न वक्तव्या गुरुगीता कदाचन॥ (manasāpi na vaktavyā gurugītā kadācana ||)
This Gurugita should never be told to one whose mind is crooked, cunning, filed with vain pride, and devoid of faith & devotion
अतीव पक्वचित्ताय श्रद्धाभक्तियुताय च। (atīva pakvacittāya śraddhābhaktiyutāya ca |)
प्रवक्तव्यमिदं देवि ममात्माऽसि सदा प्रिये॥ (pravaktavyamidaṁ devi mamātmā’si sadā priye ||)
O Dear one, this truth should be only told to one whose mind is mature and filled with faith and devotion7

‘“Vidyā (learning) once came to the Brāhmaṇa and said, ‘I am yours; protect me, don’t give me to an unworthy and conceited fellow. Protect me, I shall be better in that way.’”8

‘If any one wrongly asks to know and if anybody wrongly imparts knowledge, then both will be damned.’ … ‘It is like wasting good seeds on a barren field’9

Many such verses can be found in various scriptural texts. For thousands of years Indian religious/spiritual traditions followed this doctrine to ensure that highest truth is gradually introduced to masses; and in rare case of a matured aspirant, it can be imparted directly.

There seems a significant change in this practice in modern times; if we study lives of great spiritual masters who appeared on Earth in last hundred and fifty years, we see a clear deviation from the ancient practice. Modern saints have proclaimed the highest spiritual truths and ‘traditionally guarded spiritual techniques’ to masses. Swami Vivekananda famously said, ‘Shankara left this Advaita philosophy in the hills and forests, while I have come to bring it out of those places and scatter it broadcast before the workaday world and society. The lion-roar of Advaita must resound in every hearth and home, in meadows and groves, over hills and plains’10 and also, ‘Teach yourselves, teach everyone his real nature, call upon the sleeping soul and see how it awakes.’11 Throughout his life he preached highest Vedanta to Indians as well as Westerners, rich as well as poor, monks as well as house-holders, pure as well as impure – in fact that was his mission on Earth. He was clearly against the old method of Adhikarawada as seen from following words:

‘With all my respects for the Rishis of yore, I cannot but denounce their method in instructing the people. They always enjoined upon them to do certain things but took care never to explain to them the reason for it. This method was pernicious to the very core; and instead of enabling men to attain the end, it laid upon their shoulders a mass of meaningless nonsense. …
The Adhikarivada is the outcome of pure selfishness.
… These advocates of Adhikarivada ignored the tremendous fact of the infinite possibilities of the human soul. Every man is capable of receiving knowledge if it is imparted in his own language. A teacher who cannot convince others should weep on account of his own inability to teach the people in their own language, instead of cursing them and dooming them to live in ignorance and superstition, setting up the plea that the higher knowledge is not for them. Speak out the truth boldly, without any fear that it will puzzle the weak. Men are selfish; they do not want others to come up to the same level of their knowledge, for fear of losing their own privilege and prestige over others. Their contention is that the knowledge of the highest spiritual truths will bring about confusion in the understanding of the weak – minded men, and so the Shloka goes न बुद्धिभेदं जनयेदज्ञानां कर्मसङ्गिनाम्
I cannot believe in the self – contradictory statement that light brings greater darkness. It is like losing life in the ocean of Sachchidananda, in the ocean of Absolute Existence and Immortality. How absurd! Knowledge means freedom from the errors which ignorance leads to. Knowledge paving the way to error! Enlightenment leading to confusion! Is it possible?’12 

Also in London, while delivering the lectures, ‘Vedanta and Privileges’ and ‘Privilege’, he said:

‘…None can be Vedantists, and at the same time admit of privilege to anyone, either mental, physical, or spiritual; absolutely no privilege for anyone. The same power is in every man, the one manifesting more, the other less; the same potentiality is in everyone. Where is the claim to privilege? …’
‘… The work of the Advaita, therefore, is to break down all these privileges …’13 
‘…The enjoyment of advantage over another is privilege, and throughout ages, the aim of morality has been its destruction. This is the work which tends towards sameness, towards unity, without destroying variety. …’14 

Sri Ramakrishna too, in a divine mood, is reported to have declared that this time ‘He’ would bless all expect those with no essence in them; also, once when he had doubts about ‘English-men’ like Keshavchandra Sen accepting his teachings, he asked his ‘Divine Mother’ about it and She replied that in this age the teachings would be for all! Sri Sarada Devi said that it is easier to realize God in this age than in olden days. So spiritual giants like Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi also indicate the mass proclamation of Truth in this age.

Sri Ramana Maharshi, another spiritual giant of last century, too advocated the path of ‘Self-Enquiry’ to one and all. Traditionally this method of Self-enquiry is considered suitable only for advanced spiritual aspirants and was not advocated to masses; Sri Ramana also seems to go against the old injunctions. Swami Muktananda of Siddhayoga Movement granted śaktipāta Initiation to innumerable people without insisting on any prior preparation on part of the aspirant; in ancient times this initiation was granted after carefully selecting the suitable aspirant and was not given in mass. Here too we see a clear departure from tradition. Similarly many saints of this age like Srila Prabhupada, Paramahamsa Yogananda and others have gone for mass proclamation of their spiritual paths. Thus it becomes clear that, for more than hundred years, many spiritual masters – starting with Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda – disregarded the Adhikarawada doctrine and distributed spiritual gems for one and all. What could be the reason of this deviation?

We can get some clue for the answers to above question if we look at India’s social, political, national situation over last millennia. In ancient India, the varṇāśrama system was an excellent way to organize human society; it mainly categorized men based on their aptitude and capacity and not necessarily on their birth. But in course of time due to weakness of human mind the bane of ‘privileges’ got associated with this system. Certain sections of society, claiming physical, intellectual or spiritual superiority over other sections, started appropriating more and more social and political rights/privileges to themselves thus disturbing the natural law of evolution envisioned by varṇāśrama system. India has experienced social and political slavery for centuries partly due to this disturbance in its social fabric; in turn, the slavery contributed towards the near destruction of varṇāśrama structure. Swami Vivekananda saw this condition directly during his wandering all over India and observed succinctly as follows:

‘The right and correct means is that of the Vedas – the Jati Dharma, that is, the Dharma enjoined according to the different castes – the Svadharma, that is, one’s own Dharma, or set of duties prescribed for man according to his capacity and position – which is the very basis of Vedic religion and Vedic society. …
… Now, this Jati Dharma, this Svadharma, is the path of welfare of all societies in every land, the ladder to ultimate freedom. With the decay of this Jati Dharma, this Svadharma, has come the downfall of our land. …
… I am not talking of caste as determined by qualitative distinction, but of the hereditary caste system. I admit that the qualitative caste system is the primary one; but the pity is qualities yield to birth in two or three generations. …
… try to understand this, that if the Jati Dharma be rightly and truly preserved, the nation shall never fall. If this is true, then what was it that brought our downfall? That we have fallen is the sure sign that the basis of the Jati Dharma has been tampered with. Therefore, what you call the Jati Dharma is quite contrary to what we have in fact. First, read your own Shastras through and through, and you will easily see that what the Shastras define as caste — dharma, has disappeared almost everywhere from the land. Now try to bring back the true Jati Dharma, and then it will be a real and sure boon to the country. …’15 

So long as varṇāśrama system was functioning smoothly in India there was no need to proclaim Advaita to masses; the system ensured that proper adhikārī is produced, who in turn finds Advaita in natural course of events. The collapse of varṇāśrama system necessitated another way to make people find their jātidharma or svadharma (i.e. another way to make people find the profession which is suitable to their psycho-physical makeup). Swamiji wanted to apply Vedanta principles as a remedy to all problems – social, national, political and individual; he rightly saw that unless this approach of ‘proclaiming Truth to one and all’ is taken, Indian society cannot find it’s balance. Advaita points out the supreme ‘Pure Consciousness-Bliss Self’, which is the underlying basis for apparent diversity of phenomenon. If this principle of ‘unity in diversity’ is realized then it will lead to proper and smooth functioning of real jātidharma or svadharma; it will also address the evils, crept in the system, due to Adhikarawada! This Swamiji explains as:

‘The work of ethics has been, and will be in the future, not the destruction of variation and the establishment of sameness in the external world – which is impossible for it would bring death and annihilation – but to recognise the unity in spite of all these variations, to recognise the God within, in spite of everything that frightens us, to recognise that infinite strength as the property of everyone in spite of all apparent weakness, and to recognise the eternal, infinite, essential purity of the soul in spite of everything to the contrary that appears on the surface. This we have to recognise.’16 

Proclaiming the highest truth to all so that they can themselves figure out their svadharma, their place in universal varṇāśrama! Thus, disregarding the requirement of spiritual maturity of the aspirant and instead proclaiming highest truth to all – becomes an indirect way to arrange society into varṇāśrama! An apparently reverse method to suite the changing scenario of modern world! This could be the first reason.

Another reason for this deviation can be traced in the profound changes brought about in human civilization by the forces of scientific revolution in the West. The scientific and technological advances made by human being in last couple of centuries have changed human lifestyle like it had not changed for thousands of years. It also brought about change in psychological domain – value system, faith, religion are no longer seen in same light as it was before the revolution. But in such a changed scenario, humanity keenly felt the need for some solid foundation for life; and thus ‘Vedanta for all’ comes in picture. Swami Vivekananda said, ‘… Tremendous power is being acquired by the manufacture of machines and other appliances, and privilege is claimed today as it never has been claimed in the history of the world. That is why the Vedanta wants to preach against it, to break down this tyrannising over the souls of men. …’17 and Swami Ranganathananda further explains this as, ‘Vivekananda saw the supreme necessity for man, in this highly technological age, to grow beyond the physical-intellectual dimension and to unfold, to manifest, the ever-present Divine within, so that modern man would be able to digest, and properly direct to human ends, the vast powers that modern science and technology have placed in his hands.’18 If the great ones had not propagated the spiritual truths to masses we could have seem many more world wars and other horrors. This was the need of the age, an appropriate stage in human evolution. This could be the second reason.

Still another factor which helps us understand this deviation is confluence of East and West. Historically, these two sides of human civilization have come in contact again and again, as explained by Swamiji, ‘These two gigantic rivers (Aryans and Yavanas), issuing from far-away and different mountains (India and Greece), occasionally come in contact with each other, and whenever such confluence takes place, a tremendous intellectual or spiritual tide, rising in human societies, greatly expands the range of civilisation and confirms the bond of universal brotherhood among men.’19 And the period of history between these meetings of East and West is marked by the rise of darkness of ignorance, social seclusion, selfishness etc. India experienced political fall, social degradation and slavery in such a period. During that period India cut off itself from other civilizations and stopped communicating with other nations; Swami Vivekananda powerfully puts this as, ‘India’s doom was sealed the very day they invented the word MLECHCHHA and stopped from communion with others.’20 Communication of spiritual knowledge was prohibited for other civilizations; in fact when Swami Vivekananda was thinking of visiting West, traditional Brahmins of South strongly condemned the idea! But spread of spiritual ideas across whole humanity was the need of the age and Swami Vivekananda was to tool in the hands of Universal Consciousness to bring about its fructification. In this connection it is interesting and insightful to note Swamiji’s observation: ‘’This Moksha – path is only in India and nowhere else. Hence is true the oft-repeated saying that Mukta souls are only in India and in no other country. But it is equally true that in future they will be in other countries as well; that is well and good, and a thing of great pleasure to us’.21 This could be the third reason.

Thus we have tried to find reasons for Swami Vivekananda’s – and that of other modern saints – deviation from the tradition of Adhikarawada. This is, of course, our poor human reading of the Divine Mother’s Universal play; but it helps us center our thoughts on the life and teachings of great masters. May they shower us with more clarity and purity so that we can tune in our lives as per their Divine Will and save our planet from destruction.

Mangesh Buwa, a former software engineer, devotes his time to serving various Ramakrishna Math centers in India. He received spiritual initiation from Swami 
Ranganathananda in 1998. He lives in Nashik in the state of Maharashtra. Email:​


1. Doctrine of Special Rights and Privileges

2. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (9 Vols.), Advaita Ashrama (Dec 2002), Vol V P104-05

3. ‘The Principle of Adhikara as a Key to the Study of Hinduism’, Prof. Dhirendra Mohan Dutt, Prabuddha Bharata (June 1927), P269

4. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (9 Vols.), Advaita Ashrama (Dec 2002), Vol V P537

5. Vedantasara, Tr. Swami Nikhilananda, Advaita Ashrama (1931), P3-4

6. Srimad Bhagawad-Gita, III.26

7. Shri Guru Gita, verse 268, 314

8. Chhandogya Brahmana

9. Manu 2. 110-116

10. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (9 Vols.), Advaita Ashrama (Dec 2002), Vol VII P162

11. Ibid, Vol III P193

12. Ibid, Vol V P262-64

13. Ibid, Vol I P423-24

14. Ibid, Vol I P435

15. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (9 Vols.), Advaita Ashrama (Dec 2002), Vol V P455-57

16. Ibid, Vol I P436

17. Ibid, Vol I P425

18. Eternal Values for A Changing Society, Swami Ranganathananda, Bhavan’s Publications, Vol II P539

19. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (9 Vols.), Advaita Ashrama (Dec 2002), Vol IV P401

20. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (9 Vols.), Advaita Ashrama (Dec 2002), Vol V P52

21. Ibid, Vol V P446

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